Beyond Cheese and Crackers


Silver Oak’s Dominic Orsini and his umami delights; photo by Damion Hamilton.


Vineyard 29’s chef Austin Gallion; photo courtesy of Vineyard 29.


Spoon feeding for grownups at Vineyard 29; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.


The new Niçoise at Ram’s Gate; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.


Le foie; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

By 707 correspondent, Deirdre Bourdet.

Who else has munched through a bowl of those ultrabland tasting room crackers, wishing the winery had something better to pair with their wines? Oh that’s right, EVERYONE. Thanks to some recent loosening of the rules prohibiting wineries from serving food to the public, more and more of them are now starting to offer visitors tasty and sophisticated nibbles worthy of their wines.

Some wineries treat their pairing programs like a degustation menu, where each “dish” is a one-bite wonder composed specifically to flatter and enhance your enjoyment of a particular wine in the tasting lineup. Just like a special degustation at a restaurant, you have to reserve ahead of time for these. At ~SILVER OAK CELLARS~ in Oakville, chef Dominic Orsini uses the pairing program to show off the wines as well as his version of a truly local California cuisine. He makes his own bread and pizza doughs using a wild yeast levain he started from Silver Oak’s cabernet sauvignon grapes, and Joseph’s Best flour, which is milled old school style from whole grains of California-grown winter white or red wheat. Orsini likes to play up the umami in his daily pairings, using lots of foraged mushrooms or roasted beets as well as the mustardy aromas of arugula that are so tasty with cabernet sauvignon. (Never noticed that? You will after experiencing the pairing.) 915 Oakville Cross Rd. at Money Rd., Oakville, 707-942-7026

Cult winery ~VINEYARD 29~ brought former La Toque and Redd chef Austin Gallion on board as its hospitality manager and master of the pairing program. Gallion presents each carefully planned mouthful in Asian soup spoons, and summarized his approach to food pairing as “go with, or go opposite.” When I was there, he matched the Vineyard 29 Estate Blanc with a mouthful of gulf shrimp, pickled red onion, diced cucumber, mango, and tarragon bathed in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette—echoing the tropical richness and citrus core of the wine but also softening and rounding out the acidity. My favorite spoon of the day, though, was his duck confit with apple butter, fresh plum slices, cardamom, and thyme, paired with the silky exotic spices, red fruit, and graphite in the 2008 Vineyard 29 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Oh, succulent bliss. 2929 Hwy. 29 (get the name now?) at Weinberg Rd., St. Helena, 707-963-9292.

Other wineries are going a more restaurant-style route, with a full kitchen and an à la carte menu of dishes suggested (but not required) for each wine being poured. Sonoma’s sexy new ~RAM’S GATE WINERY~—which just opened at the end of September—hired Delfina’s former culinary project manager Jason Rose to lead the kitchen and oversee its culinary gardens. They also recruited Benu’s opening GM Marc Hartenfels to create a sophisticated service team for the swank, lounge-like setting. Obviously, these guys were not messing around.

Rose’s menu of small (and not so small) plates includes a gorgeous reimagination of salade Niçoise, with heirloom tomatoes, pole beans, smoked potatoes, farm egg, black olive purée, and a tonnato sauce—a far cry from the usual corn and butter-laced dishes proposed as a chardonnay match. Other can’t miss items are the pork and lamb albondigas with Veronica’s mole (a sauce Rose modified from the recipe of a former coworker’s Mexican grandma), and a big ole slab of seared Sonoma foie gras on toast with vanilla-roasted Bronx grapes, crumbled hazelnuts, and a pepper gastrique. A month later, I am still drooling at the memory of that foie, and cursing the dinner plans that forced me to leave some on the plate. Try it with the ‘09 late harvest zin, which adds an herbaceous note to the luscious caramel magic. 28700 Arnold Dr. (Hwy. 121) at Mangel Ranch Rd., Sonoma, 707-721-8700.